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If you’re reading this, you must be planning on travelling by yourself and omgosh I’m so excited for you and you’ll have the best time. Ever. Ever ever. Buuut you’ve probably realised there’s a lot of information to wrap your head around (when’s the best time to book flights? Should you get an international money card?) – it can be overwhelming, so I’ve broken the hard bits down for you to make it all a bit easier to digest.
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It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where my experience with dengue began, but I’m fairly sure it was somewhere in southern Cambodia, and I am so, so glad I wasn’t alone when it happened.
I’d been travelling around India and South East Asia for a few months and had dealt with one or two weird viruses and bugs, but nothing big enough to really knock me out for more than a day or so. It’s funny because everyone warns you about food poisoning and malaria, so you get shots, buy a lifetime supply of Doxycycline and get all picky about where and what you eat, but it won’t necessarily stop you from getting sick. Not once did I think I’d get dengue.
It began when I was in Hoi An, Vietnam trying to go to sleep, and my arms and legs started to ache. It started off pretty mild, but as the night went on, it worsened until it felt like my limbs were on fire and I had this pulsing headache behind my eyes. Painkillers didn’t even help a little bit.
I kept trying to close my eyes and ignore the burning sensation ripping through my limbs, but I felt so alert and acutely aware of the pain that I lay there all night – eyes open, in pain, and confused.
I vividly remember coming to the realisation at about 6am that it definitely wasn’t going away, and that my ability to deal with it was dwindling.
By the time I woke Chris up, I was in a state. I had no idea what was going on, I must have been exhausted but I still felt wide-awake, and since I rarely lose my appetite when I’m sick, I was starving. The pain in my muscles and behind my eyes had also escalated, and moving around was really difficult. Chris went and got me some food and a thermometer, Googled my symptoms, realised my temperature was almost at 39-degrees, and took me to Pacific Hospital.
It looked like a scene from MASH.
The doctor said it wasn't malaria, but was probably dengue, which he could do nothing about, so sent me home with some super-painkillers that worked a whole lot better than the ones I had.
We continued to travel down the coast of Vietnam toward Ho Chi Minh, but it was April (the hottest part of the year) and being outside in the heat and bright light made me feel delirious. I struggled to be outside for more than an hour or so and was too exhausted to see or do anything. If I didn’t take another painkiller after five-ish hours the headaches would start again, and my muscles still ached – it was a sad time to be alive.
It took a bit more than two-weeks to get back to normal (which is better than most – it can take some people more than a year), and I really think it had a lot to do with huge quantities of rest. I didn’t push myself to see sites, go to markets, or traipse around temples at all.
In a way, I do feel like I missed out a bit, but dengue is one of those things that will completely run you down if you don’t look after yourself – there are loads of stories about people who continued adventuring as normal, and end up much sicker for longer with weakened immune systems after an experience with dengue.
When I think about it like that, I’m really glad I slept.
What You Need To Know:
I didn’t get sick for about a year after my experience with dengue, not even a cold. While the virus doesn't reemerge years later, like malaria, you can contract it again.
There are four different strands of the virus. You can be re-infected by a mosquito with a different strand, which you do not want. If you get dengue once, it can range from relatively mild to fatal. If you get it again, your risk of death increases and you should go straight to hospital. They can’t cure you, but they can hydrate you and keep an eye on your white blood cells and platelets – World Nomads explain this pretty well.
Symptoms can be mistaken for the flu, which means you can go on with life completely unaware that you really need to actively avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. If you’ve been infected, you’ll have a couple of the following:
- High temperature
- Severe headache
- Pain behind the eyes
- Joint and muscle aches
- Nausea and vomiting
- Generally feeling unwell
- Skin rash
- Mild bleeding/easy bruising
Want to avoid it altogether?
Bathe in insect repellant.
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Even if you're not a traveller, the islands of South East Asia are probably on your bucket list.
The sands are white, the waters are clear, warm and blue, you can dive in the reefs, stay in bungalows, eat local food, lay on the sand, and drink cheap cocktails – anyone who's been to a Thai island will probably recommend it.
Before I begin my tirade in to why you should probably avoid Koh Rong in Cambodia, I should mention that the island does look lovely on face value – the waters are clear, the sands are white, and the beach huts are wooden and picturesque and really nice to sit in, but on the other hand, the island is basically inhabited by tourists.
I'm not really sure why, but I thought Koh Rong would be like a Thai island, and it really wasn't. It was kind of grimy.
If you're in to drinking all day, everyday, you don't care what you eat, and you're not fussed over things like hygiene, you'll probably love Koh Rong – lots of people do, and that's great! I think we were there over some sort of holiday, and one of the festive activities involved drunkenly clawing your way up a greased-up metal pole to reach some cash. If that's what you're in to, stop reading and buy a ticket immediately! For everyone else, here's a bunch of reasons to avoid Koh Rong.
1. Extreme Tourism
I'm not usually someone who cares about 'touristy' spots while travelling (it seems weird to me that some people seem to hate 'touristy' locations when they're tourists themselves...), but in Koh Rong, you can't really walk around and get a taste of local culture because almost everything there exists for tourists. Drunk, sexed-up tourists.
2. Expensive Accommodation
Given how ramshackled the place is (not in an endearing way), accommodation is way more expensive than it needs to be. We're talking big cracks in the walls of bungalows, a lack of mosquito netting (don't care about mosquitoes? Here's why you should!), and just a general lack of basic cleanliness – all this would be fine if it was cheaper, but it ended up costing more than anywhere else we stayed.
3. The Food Is Terrible
If you're in to Khmer food, definitely avoid Koh Rong. All the food joints are run by drunk and/or stoned tourists who (largely) can't cook. If you want local food, forget it – the menus are full of sandwiches and pizzas, and they're greasy enough to put you off bread for life. If you come across somewhere selling 'fresh' fish, you'll get something that's been fried within an inch of its life by one of the aforementioned tourists.
This one is based on personal experience, but after a day or so we noticed the staff at all the hostels and food joints had some kind of infection. They all had a bandaged arm or ankle, and we overheard someone talking about how contagious it was. There was also a human who seemed to have the same skin disease as some of the wild dogs.
So what do you have once you look beyond the accommodation, the food, everyone else who's there, and lack of local culture? A nice beach and not much else.
By the end of three-days, we couldn't wait to get off the island.
If you want to travel to the beaches of Cambodia, I recommend Sihanoukville. If you ignore all the drunk tourists and onslaught of Australians screaming "Koh Rong? More like Koh Right!" in the most ocker accents you've ever heard in your life, and look at the actual beach, it's really quite lovely. Plus, the food is great.
Alternatively, if you're looking for some peace, head to Otres Beach. It's very close to Sihanoukville, but it's the complete opposite – calm, serene, and underpopulated. We spent about five days going to each of the 10 or so cafes and restaurants along the beach, and sat there for hours while I worked online and tried to detox from all the beer we'd been drinking.
If you're looking for actual relaxation, avoid Koh Rong and head to Otres – that's where it's at.